Wislawa Szymborska Szymborska, Wislawa (Vol. 99) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wislawa Szymborska Nobel Prize for Literature

Born in 1923, Szymborska is a Polish poet.

Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska, a private—some would say reclusive—widow, has been described as "the Mozart of poetry … [with] something of the fury of Beethoven." Although she is perhaps Poland's most popular female writer and valued as a national treasure there, she is little known by English-speaking readers, and only three books of her poetry have been translated: Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (1981); People on a Bridge (1986); and View with a Grain of Sand (1995). "Polish poetry in the 20th century has reached a strong international position on the European continent," observed renowned Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. "Szymborska represents it well." Szymborska emphasizes and examines the chance happenings of daily life and of personal relations in her poetry, which spans five decades. "She is a master at recognizing the importance of the insignificant …," explained James Beschta, "it is the innovative, playful use of language that dominates her style." While Szymborska treats a wide variety of subjects in as many different styles, her method remains constant: her lyrics usually build from some small detail, then expand into revelations about the larger universe. Szymborska published her first poem in 1945, but she later renounced her first two volumes of poetry as attempts to conform to tenets of social realism. The Swedish Academy acknowledged that it awarded the Nobel Prize to her on the basis of her poems written since 1957, when she published her third collection, Calling out to the Yeti, which the Academy cited as a reaction against Stalin. "Of course, life crosses politics, but my poems are strictly not political," Szymborska said in a rare interview. "They are more about people and life." Beata Chmiel concluded that the Nobel was given "to an unknown poet of Poland, but this poet can be very close to people all over the world: men, women, black and white."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dlatego zyjemy (poetry) 1952
Pytania zadawane sobie (poetry) 1954
Wolanie do Yeti (poetry) 1957
Sól (poetry) 1962
Wiersze wybrane (poetry) 1964
Sto pociech (poetry) 1967
Poezje wybrane (poetry) 1967
Poezje (poetry) 1970

Wybór poezji (poetry) 1970
Wszelki wypadek (poetry) 1972
Wybór wierszy (poetry) 1973
Lektury nadobowiazkowe (lectures) 1974
Tarsjusz i inne wiersze (poetry) 1976
Wielka liczba (poetry) 1976
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: 70 Poems (poetry) 1981
Poezje wybrane (II) (poetry) 1983
Ludzie na moscie [People on a Bridge] (poetry) 1986
Poezje = Poems (poetry) 1989
The End and the Beginning (poetry) 1993
View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (poetry) 1995

∗This work is a bilingual edition.

Alice-Catherine Carls (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poezje=Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 519.

[In the following review, Carls detects "a grim reminder of taboos that are still bridling Polish society" in Poezji = Poems.]

Polish publishers have a tradition of publishing original works written in foreign languages. The present volume, a reprint of a 1981 bilingual selection of Wislawa Szymborska's verse (Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems), belongs to that category. Given the present shortage of paper in Poland and the resultant price tag of 2,500 zlotys—a student's entire monthly stipend in the 1970s—such an undertaking can only be justified by Szymborska's status as one of the finest postwar Polish poets and by the desire to acknowledge her popularity abroad.

Surprisingly missing from the Polish edition, however, are the comments and the bibliographic note contained in the American edition; the Polish volume remains silent as well about the translators, on whom a note would have been appropriate, especially in light of the recent death of Magnus J. Krynski, a prominent Polish émigré. The American edition's introduction by the translators has now become the afterword. Its opening lines about Polish critics' unabating praise for Szymborska have been deleted. Later, one paragraph referring to the poems written under Stalinist rule and two paragraphs mentioning political themes, the poet's recent protest against Stalinist politics, and her involvement in the Flying University have been deleted. As a result, the footnotes have been considerably abridged. Szymborska's poetry stands bare here, a grim reminder of taboos that are still bridling Polish society.

Bogdana Carpenter (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of People on a Bridge, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 163-64.

[In the following review, Carpenter finds People on a Bridge "subtle, witty, and ironic."]

Long recognized in Poland as a leading voice in contemporary Polish poetry, Wislawa Szymborska has not achieved the same popularity in the English-speaking world as other poets of her generation such as Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz. Still, People on a Bridge is not the first introduction of Szymborska's verse to English readers. Czeslaw Milosz included poems by her in his seminal anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965), and in 1981 Princeton University Press published a selection of her poems translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire. Let us hope that the present volume, a welcome addition to those earlier translations, will help bring Szymborska the recognition that she deserves.

The poems selected by Adam Czerniawski come from four different collections and span a period of twenty years. Rather than adhere to chronology, Czerniawski has grouped the poems according to recurring themes, most prominently the problem of art's relationship to time, death, and reality. Thematic unity is further emphasized by a ring composition. The poems opening and closing the book (the only two given both in English translation and in the Polish original) deal with the precariousness of human life, symbolized both times by...

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M. G. Levine (review date January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of People on a Bridge, in Choice, Vol. 29, No. 5, January, 1992, p. 752.

[In the review below, Levine briefly compares People on a Bridge to the earlier Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts.]

Szymborska is a distinguished Polish poet, admired for her witty, often wry, coolly intellectual poems—poems that at the same time radiate warmth and, through their attention to the particular, often subvert the intellectual categories through which we view the world. Adam Czerniawski has translated 36 of Szymborska's poems published over the last two decades. The present volume is not the first collection of Szymborska's poems in English translation. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, a selection of 70 poems (the earliest of them from the mid-1950s) in translations by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, was published ten years ago (1981). That volume offered a much richer introduction to Szymborska's poetry, having a more varied and therefore more representative selection and an essay by the translators that is both longer and more informative than Czerniawski's crisp five-page evocation of Szymborska's "particular imagination." Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts had the additional virtue of being a facing-page, bilingual edition. Of the 36 poems in People on a Bridge, 20 also appear in Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts. But Czerniawski's translations are more felicitous, and his selection includes 16 new poems written in the 1980s; thus, People on a Bridge will enhance college and public library collections of poetry in translation.

James Beschta (review date September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, in Kliatt, Vol. 29, No. 5, September, 1995, p. 29.

[In the review below, Beschta praises View with a Grain of Sand, calling the volume "a joy."]

Although her work has been translated into English before, Szymborska has not been widely recognized here in the States. Here, her selected poems, wonderfully translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, might well change that situation, bringing America into step with Europe, which acknowledges her as arguably Poland's leading female poet. This collection presents 100 poems taken from seven separate volumes. As such, it offers a broad perspective on her career, one which maintains an optimism and sense of wonder about the world while recognizing the trials of reality. In 1957 she says, "We've inherited hope—/ the gift of forgetting …" and in 1993 she points out that

      This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
      of the mornings
      that make waking up worthwhile.
      The grass is green
      on Maciejowice's fields,
      and it is studded with dew,…

Through the writings of nearly 50 years, her sense of humor is as evident as her sense of wonder, and her urge to speculate, to find alternative possible causes for what the rest of us would tend to ignore or accept as evident, makes her as unique as she is delightful. She is a master at recognizing the importance of the insignificant, and though her subtle insights alone are justification for her success, it is the innovative, playful use of language that dominates her style and resonates through these translations. This volume is a joy. Szymborska deserves to be heard and recognized, and this book is a great introduction.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of View with a Grain of Sand, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1996, p. 29.

[In the review below, the critic briefly considers Szymborska's poetic style.]

"So much world all at once—how it rustles and bustles!" Szymborska is constantly amazed and challenged by life's plenty, and in capturing it in language, her poems employ all the "inventiveness / bounty, sweep, exactitude, / sense of order—gifts that border / on witchcraft and wizardry" that she praises in life itself. Though claiming only to have "borrowed from the truth," Szymborska writes lyrics that build from small details, such as a grain of sand, into visions of the wider universe. Her styles, like her subjects, are many, ranging from satire to elegy, meditation to play. She is especially deft at composing brief, spare allegories that have all the emotional force of extended narratives. In rendering this multi-faceted Polish voice into English, the translators (Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) deserve high praise. There is nothing strained or awkward here, and lines like, "Oh how grassy is this hopper, / how this berry ripely rasps," work so well in English it's hard to believe they were conceived in any other language. Culling work from between 1957 and 1993, [View with a Grain of Sand] is the third selection of Szymborska's poems to appear in English. One hopes it won't be the last.

Edward Hirsch (essay date 18 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Subversive Activities," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 7, April 18, 1996, pp. 35-6.

[In the following essay, Hirsch provides an overview of Szymborska's career, analyzing subversive elements in her poetry.]

Wislawa Szymborska, with Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, is one of the major living Polish poets of the generation after Milosz. Of the four Szymborska is the least well-known in America, perhaps because she has remained in Poland, and because she shuns the public eye. Little is known about her private life; she has rarely been interviewed. Yet, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, her reticence is accompanied by considerable...

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Amy Gamerman (essay date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pole Wins Nobel Literature Prize," in Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXVII, No. 68, October 4, 1996, p. A5.

[In the following essay, Gamerman reviews the themes of Szymborska's poetry.]

In "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem," Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday, writes of a poet who contemplates the cosmos—and comes up short:

"In her depiction of the sky, one detects a certain helplessness,
the authoress is lost in a terrifying expanse,
she is startled by the planets' lifelessness,
and within her mind (which can only be called...

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Dean E. Murphy (essay 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reclusive Polish Poet Awarded Nobel Prize," in Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1996, p. A1.

[In the following essay, Murphy relates the reponses of other Polish writers to the announcement of Szymborska's award.]

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, a reclusive widow whose seductively simple verse has captured the wit and wisdom of everyday life for the past half century, has been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday in Stockholm.

Unassuming, shy and obsessively protective of her privacy, Szymborska had been considered a longshot for the prestigious prize, which was presented to another poet, Irishman...

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Los Angeles Times (essay date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Near a People's Heart," in Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1996, p. B8.

[In the following essay, the critic considers the significance of Szymborska's award to Polish letters.]

"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," Percy Shelley once said. He was speaking from early 19th-century Europe, a world away from 1990s America, where unacknowledged power is more likely to lie with spin doctors and political action committees. What Shelley said, however, largely remains true in Poland today: The country has been carved up so many times by invaders since the late 18th century that its heart has remained whole only in its literature.


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David Streitfield (essay date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Szymborska? It Means 'Famous'," in Washington Post, October 4, 1996, pp. F1, F3.

[Below, Streitfield introduces the Nobel Prize winner to English-speaking readers.]

Vihs-WAH-vah sheem-BOHR-skah.

Pronouncing the name of the 1996 Nobel laureate in literature is the hardest part. Once that's done, Wislawa Szymborska's poetry slips down like melted snow. From "Writing a Résumé":

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your loves, mention only the...

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Jane Berlez (essay date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Polish Poet, Observer of Daily Life, Wins Nobel," in The New York Times, October 4, 1996, p. C5.

[Below, Berlez offers reminiscences of Szymborska from friends and writers in Poland.]

Wislawa Szymborska, a self-effacing 73-year-old Polish poet who collects trashy postcards because she says trash has no pretensions, won the Nobel Prize for Literature today.

This year's prize is the biggest ever, $1.12 million The announcement by the Swedish Academy surprised some in the literary world who had expected the 1996 award to go to a novelist because last year's winner was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Ms. Szymborska, whose name is...

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Dinitia Smith (essay date 21 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Competing Versions of Poem by Nobelist," in The New York Times, October 21, 1996, pp. C13-14.

[In the following essay, Smith focuses on the difference between two translated versions of a poem by Szymborska that appeared in both The New Yorker and The New Republic.]

There was a wee contretemps in the literary world last week when The New Yorker and The New Republic inadvertently published the same poem by Wislawa Szymborska of Poland, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only that but the two translations had subtly different tones, and the endings, depending on how seriously one takes these things, had slightly different...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (essay date 27 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Reluctant Poet," in The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1996, p. 51.

[Below, Baranczak discusses Szymborska's poetics, citing the poet's wisdom for realizing "that what attracts people to poetry today is … its art of asking questions."]

"The Greta Garbo of World Poetry," trumpeted a headline in the Italian daily La Repubblica; it has so far been easily the most amusing among the attempts of the news media worldwide to attach some identity tag to this year's Nobel laureate in literature. What makes the comparison genuinely funny is that it's true and untrue at the same time. Those who know Wislawa Szymborska personally will be the first to...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Dobyns, Stephen. "Poetry." Book World—The Washington Post (30 July 1995): 8.

Appreciative review of View with a Grain of Sand.

McKee, Louis. Review of View with a Grain of Sand. Library Journal 120, No. 12 (July 1995): 85.

Concludes that "it is about time more readers found the poetry of Szymborska."

"Writing a Résumé for a Nobel Winner." U.S. News & World Report 121, No. 15 (14 October 1996): 32.

Brief account of Szymborska's career.

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